How George Washington did his hair "The Washington Family" painted by Edward Savage. (Smithsonian/Wiki Commons)
How George Washington did his hair
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George Washington's hairstyle is iconic and simple enough that most Americans can probably recall it in an instant - or they can at least refresh their memory by pulling out a dollar bill or a quarter. It was pulled back from his forehead and puffy on the sides, colored gray-white, perhaps like many wigs of the day. But Washington never wore a wig. At National Geographic, Robert Krulwich writes that he was stunned to learn this fact from Ron Chernow's book Washington: A Life. Krulwich explains:
 
"Turns out, that hair was his. All of it - the pigtail, the poofy part in the back, that roll of perfect curls near his neck. What's more (though you probably already guessed this), he wasn't white-haired. There's a painting of him as a young man, with Martha and her two children, that shows his hair as reddish brown, which Chernow says was his true color."
 
The painting, The Courtship of Washington by John C. McRae, was painted in 1860, long after Washington's death in 1799. But a project out of the University of Virginia called The Papers of George Washington also confirms that the first president's natural hair color was light brown. The style he favored wasn't fancy, though it may appear so to modern eyes. It was a military style called a queue, "the 18th-century equivalent of a marine buzz cut," Krulwich writes. With charming illustrations, artist Wendy MacNaughton brings to life Washington's routine - the gathering, enthusiastic yank back to try and broaden the forehead, fluffing of the hair on the side and the powdering.
 
Even if Washington didn't wear a wig - as some of his contemporaries sported - he did powder his hair to get that white look. It may also have been the fashion in America to wear less elaborate wig styles, if one wore a wig at all. By the late 18th century, wigs were starting to go out of style. So Washington could have been fashion-forward in his military simplicity. Still, the powdering was a chore involving a robe to protect clothes, a cone to protect the face and sometimes, special bellows to puff the powder evenly. But Washington's use of powder raises the question, how did he avoid the look of permanent dandruff? Krulwich writes:
 
"(Betty Myers, a master wigmaker at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia), says that's why Washington bunched his ponytail into a silk bag, to keep from leaving a white windshield wiper splay of powder on his back when he was dancing with the ladies (which he liked to do). As for keeping the powder off one's shoulders, how Washington did that - if he did do that - nobody could tell me. Probably every powder-wearing guy in the 1760s knew the secret, but after a couple of centuries, whatever Washington did to stay spotless is lost to us."
 
It's possible that the same solution that helped Washington's hair rolls stay fluffy also kept the powder sticking - greasy hair and lots of pomade. Bathing and washing hair frequently wasn't a popular activity, so powders also solved the problem of smelly unwashed heads - they were perfumed. It's a good thing fashions change.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why do we remember George Washington’s hair as white?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (63)
  • alexh2-bai
    2/15/2016 - 12:01 p.m.

    We remember Washingtons hair as white. He powdered his hair when he was famous. In most paintings it was white. Most boys back then had white hair. That's why we remember Washingtons hair as white.

  • lydiag-bai
    2/15/2016 - 12:02 p.m.

    We remember Geogre Washington's hair as white because in all of his pictures his hair was powdered. He powdered his hair because it gave off a good scent so he didn't have to take showers often. It also was a very popular style back then.

  • jareds-bai
    2/15/2016 - 12:02 p.m.

    I thought that article was very interesting. I always thought he used a wig. I'm surprised that he did that every day. I guess it was a chore for George Washington.

  • tates-bai
    2/15/2016 - 12:05 p.m.

    Because when his hair was white it stayed white because he put powder in his hair to keep from getting dandruff.

  • brennar-bai
    2/15/2016 - 12:05 p.m.

    There are many pictures and paintings that show his hair white. He always powdered his hair to make it look white. That is why I remember George Washington's hair.

  • paigew5-pla
    2/15/2016 - 03:45 p.m.

    George Washington did not wear a wig when he was a alive. His hair was real. His actual hair color was more of a lighter brown reddish hair color. Washington used to powder his hair making it look whiter than it appeared to be. Some people question why it did not cause dandruff. The powder was like a perfume for his hair because it made it smell much better.

  • jacobc5-pla
    2/16/2016 - 01:19 p.m.

    This article describes how George Washington, our first president, wore his hair. Most men of that time wore wigs to make them look smarter. Not Washington, his hair was all natural. Washington poofed it on the sides so his hair was like a cloud.(simile) and pulled it back on his forehead. The rest of the article then describes the exact way he wore his hair.

    I like this article because it shows that Washington was a real man and didn't do the fake things that were popular in that day. He was a genuine person that was a great leader and president.

  • mar'quiseh-fra
    2/16/2016 - 01:23 p.m.

    We remember his hair as white because when he lived back then most of the people who lived in that time had white hair or wigs.

  • jessicac2-fra
    2/16/2016 - 01:33 p.m.

    We remember George Washington as a white because his hair was real but his hair color was reddish brown and he use to put something on to make his hair white. He put on powder to make his hair look white. the powder was a perfume to turn it white so it can smell good.

  • ShawnaWeiser-Ste
    2/16/2016 - 01:51 p.m.

    I never really thought about George Washington's hair. I always thought it was his hair, no powder or wig involved. I also thought that that hair style was fancy for an 18th century gentleman.

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